Sister Act

Tzeitel and shtetl — perfect together?

On the one hand, the role of eldest daughter has done pretty well by a number of actresses — Bette Midler, Sharon Lawrence — in the 46 years since the original of "Fiddler on the Roof" first scratched out its timeless tune.

On the other hand … there is no other hand.

And Rita Markova can only hope the tradition continues.

In a way, Tzeitel of Anatevka is an avatar for the actress, herself Ukraine-born and her family facing the anti-Semitic programs if not pogroms met head-on by Tevye's most-eligible darling daughter.

Coincidence, sounds crazy no? Nyet: Conditions for Jews — whether those faced by Tzeitel in the early 1900s of ambushed Anatevka or late 1900s by Markova's family — have long been problematic, whether it be tzarist Russia or sorrowful Russia, acknowledges the actress as she prepares to step on stage at the Walnut Street Theatre, where "Fiddler" just opened for a long run.

Not that Markova remembers the problems personally. "I was very little," she says of her arrival in this country with her family in 1989, accompanying her parents and the maternal side of the family; the paternal side arrived five years later.

But she does know that that universal dread that comes with being scapegoated extended to the universities. "There was more anti-Semitism in the Ukraine than in, let's say, Moscow," she notes.

"Getting into universities for my father was hard when they found out he was Jewish. So it was a matter of 'Let's go to a less anti-Semitic city' to go to school."

Miracle of miracles — they all got out. Which is also a pretty good description of how the actress with a number of off-Broadway and regional credits feels about standing on stage here as Tzeitel, a role seemingly tailored to her talents. (It doesn't hurt that Tzeitel marries Motel the tailor by musical's end).

Homing in on Part
The actress who once starred in "Homer's Odyssey" feels her stage sojourn has hit home with this production. "This part has always been at the top of my list," claims Markova. "Especially after playing a cat ('Cats') and a nun ('Nunsense'). It's nice to play a Russian Jewish person."

Such a match! "I could say that the anti-Semitism Tzeitel and her family face is not relevant these days, but, unfortunately, I can't. It is very relevant today."

While she revels in her role, it is not one Markova always knew about. "I didn't know 'Fiddler' existed before we moved," since the Sholom Aleichem tale wasn't exactly mandatory reading in Russia.

But, the music of the nyet eventually became familiar to her. "I did see the [1971] movie and my mom plays the piano and would play the music from the show as I sang along."

Is this the little girl who carried the tune? Yes, and, of course, she notes, her brother wasn't immune. "At my brother's wedding, they played 'Sunrise, Sunset.' "

If the accent is on memories, it was also on helpfulness during rehearsal: "Since I speak Russian, director Bruce Lumpkin asked me for proper diction" for the other characters as well.

And as she leaves Anatevka every night for her post-performance digs in Philadelphia, well, Markova's not exactly far from the home she loves; Philadelphia is actually her city of brotherly love.

"My brother and his wife now live here," she notes.

And in a way, "Fiddler" lives in the hearts of the entire Markova family. In her Playbill bio, Rita dedicates the performance "in loving memory to Grandmother Mina."

And she thinks of the role she has played in the family's dedication to survival, "going from the camps" — her great-great grandparents died in the Holocaust — "to my being able to be in this show today."

This engaging entertainer is engaged to more than the stage these days. Does that mean she has a real Motel the tailor in her life?

"I just got engaged," she says happily. "And while he's not a tailor, he is in the costume jewelry line."

And, no, his name isn't Singer.

· · ·

To life, to life, to …Chava!

While it's her life on stage thee days, it's not her whole life: Center City's Michaela Shuchman is a sweet 16 with a suite of things to do.

A member of the Hebrew school at Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel and an active student at the Baldwin School, this delightful daughter of Salem and Barbara Shuchman has her hand in a number of life roles in addition to Chava.

But does Chava have a hand in her lifestyle?

The middle daughter of Tevye and Golde is a maverick, no pushover in the push-cart family in which she's been raised.

After all, she's the one who elopes with the ultimate outsider, the Russian Fyedka.

But a rebel? Not her, says Michaela. But she does have some ideas of her own: "I've seen the movie [of 'Fiddler'] a lot, and I always said I'd play any of the sisters. Maybe as I get older, I'll do that, too."

Certainly, she has her parents' support — dad's a venture capitalist; mom a pediatrician — and she can also count on the double support of her siblings, 5-year-old twins Isaiah and Jaiden, who "come to a lot of my shows."

There has been a lot to see. A former student at the Raymond and Ruth Perelman Day School, Shuchman's showed her stuff before at the Walnut ("A Christmas Carol") and also at the Wilma, appearing in "The Pillowman."

Sweet dreams these days are afforded by achieving part of her career curriculum: "I want to go to college for musical theater, and then eventually move to New York and get to Broadway," she says.

And should they ever stage a show about a young woman who can impress from the bimah, well, Michaela's already done the prep part.

Life is, after all, a dress rehearsal.

"My Bat Mitzvah," she says, notably happy, "was a pretty good performance." 



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